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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fired Fire Setting Firefighter Gets Job Back

     In 1997, 34-year-old Mary Wolski became the first female firefighter in Erie, Pennsylvania. From all accounts, she did an excellent job, and all was well until her mother fell ill from a staph infection in 2005. Following her mother's death that year, Wolski became deeply depressed and came under the care of a psychiatrist who prescribed six medications which, according to Wolski, induced thoughts of suicide.

     The firefighter, on December 28, 2006, attempted to kill herself in a vacant house owned by her father. Wolski started a fire in a bathtub by igniting a pile of clothing. When the heat became too intense, she threw a pan of water on the blaze. After dousing the fire, Wolski made shallow cuts (hesitation marks) across her wrists with a knife. She called a family member for help, stating that she had tried to kill herself by smoke inhalation. Four fire department units rushed to the scene where a firefighter added more water to the smouldering clothing. (The vast majority of pathological fire setters are men. Women who set these attention-getting, cry-for-help fires usually ignite pieces of clothing piled on their beds. Wolski, a firefighter, had the good sense to set her fire in the bathtub so the house wouldn't burn to the ground.)

     In April 2007, the district attorney of Erie County decided not to charge Wolski with an arson-related offense. (I've thought about this decision, and believe the proscutor would have made the same decision even if Wolski had not been a firefighter.) Shortly after the district attorney's decision not to pursue the matter, the fire chief, citing the firesetting as the reason,  fired Wolski. In December of that year, the Erie Civil Service Board upheld the dismissal. Set out in its report, the civil service rationale was: "The act of establishing [setting] a fire in a residence is wholly incompatible with the role of a firefighter, despite the mitigating circumstances of Ms. Wolski's psychological state."

     Wolski's attorney, Paul Susko, in October 2008, filed a wrongful termination suit against the city in federal court. The plaintiff, citing the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), claimed that Wolski had not been fired because she set the fire in the bathtub, but because she suffered from a mental illness. This, according to Susko, was in clear violation of theADA.

     Assistant City Solicitor Gerald Villella defended the city against Wolski's suit. In February 2011, he filed a motion asking federal judge Sean J. McLaughlin to dismiss the action. Villella argued that because the city had fired Wolski for setting the fire, not for being mentally ill, she had no case under the ADA. The judge refused to dismiss the case, ruling that a jury would decide "...whether or not Wolski's disability was a motivating factor in the city's decision to terminate her employment."

     The civil trial got underway on January 30, 2012. Wolski's attorney, Paul Susko, told the panel of eight jurors that the city had no evidence that his client's bout with mental illness posed a threat to her or others. According to Wolski, once city officials learned of her attempted suicide, she was treated "like a pariah." The ADA had been passed, he said, by congress to protect people like his client aginst unfair treatment by their employers.

     Assistant City Solicitor Villella argued that the ADA was not meant to protect a firefighter who had started a fire in a house. The solicitor denied that Wolski's mental illness per se caused her termination. He said her reinstatement would erode firefighter morale and public trust.

     The jury, on February 6, found in favor of Wolski. Judge McLaughlin ordered the city to hire her back as soon as a firefighter's retirement provided an opening. The judge said Wolski had "clawed" her way back from death's door, and was ready to serve the city again. He encouraged the community to take pride in the jury's verdict. Solicitor Villella, telling reporters that this was "...the first time a firefighter had started a fire and had gotten her job back," would explore the possibility of an appeal. (This is unlikely.)

     The firing of this firefighter cost the city of Erie $206,665, $186,624 of it in back wages, plus various other reimbursements.

     When all is said and done, how one feels about the Wolski case depends on one's opinion of the Americans with Disability Act being applied to cases of mental illness. Had Wolski been injured in a car accident that rendered her physically incapable of doing the job, the ADA wouldn't apply. Does the fact Wolski set a pathologically motivated fire, then tried to kill herself, make her unfit to be a firefighter? What if she is confronted with another tragedy, and is given depression medication that induces suicidal thoughts? If she had been a police officer instead of a firefighter, would the results of this case been any different? What if she had been a public school teacher?    

1 comment:

  1. Asked whether citizens of Erie should be concerned about Wolski returning to her job as a firefighter, Susko said they have nothing to worry about. "She's recovered almost completely and only takes one anti-depressant.